This is a post in my 50 Nifty series, in which I’m reading through 50 books that embody each of the 50 United States. Find out why I’m doing this and which books I’m reading when (so you can read along) by checking out my first 50Nifty post, or else browse all 50Nifty posts by clicking here!
Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
The “angle of repose” is most often a mining term used to describe the angle at which the material being piled up will start to fall back down the “hill” created in its piling. That term became more clear to me a couple of weeks ago when shoveling out a path for some movers through an alleyway behind a nearby apartment building. 19 inches of snow was dumped on Chicago, and it had drifted to almost three feet in places back here.
On the left, you’ll see how the piled snow angles up to the wall. Because the snow would begin rolling back into the path if I tried to pile it any higher, whatever angle it is currently at is the angle of repose. So, with our mining lesson of the day out of the way, we can get on to Wallace Stegner’s 1992 novel of the same name.
Angle of Repose is a beautifully written weaving of two stories; that of narrator Lyman Ward, a historian and writer dealing with his recent wheelchair-bound life, and that of his paternal grandparents, pioneers of the West in the 1880s about whom Lyman is writing a book. Stegner expertly pairs the two stories, which are about different circumstances but have enough thematically in common to keep the reader engaged in both. While about 250 pages over my 350-page “limit” for this project, I still was absorbed in the story enough to finish it, and I’m glad I did, although I felt it would have been better suited to the state of Idaho for this project than Colorado.
Stegner’s descriptions of both the places that Lyman’s grandparents lived and the people they encountered were spectacular. Not only was it a story about how the West was developed but was also about greater ideas of freedom, love, and justice, and how those ideas have changed over the centuries. Ward’s grandfather was an engineer in the mining industry; thus one reason for the title, but Ward also narrates that his grandmother thought the phrase to be “too good for mere dirt,” an exclamation that ushers in discussion of the phrase as it relates to the human condition, as well, which proves to be a rich discussion. No offense to dirt, but I agree with Susan Ward, and am glad Stegner used the phrase for the title of this Pulitzer* Prize winner.
*Do you pronounce it “Pyooh-litzer” or “Pull-itzer”? I’m a Pull-itzer girl myself, but much like other oft-debated pronunciation conundrums (Augustine, for example), if you say it confidently, no one will (likely) question you. There are expert adherents in both camps, and life’s too short to waste energy arguing about it.